Global Policy Forum

In Reversal, US to Engage With Human Rights Council


By Haider Rizvi

April 2, 2009

The Barack Obama administration's decision this week to seek a seat on the world's top human rights body has affirmed the hopes of many activist groups that the United States will take a far more multilateral approach to diplomacy than in the past. "The United States can make an important contribution to making the [U.N. Human Rights] Council a more effective body," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Active involvement by the U.S. will bring new energy to the Council's deliberations and actions," added Roth in a statement lauding the Obama's administration's move to take part in the council election, due to be held next month. The Geneva-based Human Rights Council was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 to replace the 53-member Human Rights Commission, which the U.S. and many of its Western allies described as inept and ineffective. Long-time observers at the U.N. say the Bush administration had wanted to join the new international rights body, but the fear of an embarrassing loss in the election kept it from taking part.

The 47-member council is a leading multilateral body responsible for monitoring human rights violations across the world. Currently, it has a wide range of issues on its agenda, which also include conflict situations in many part of the world. Some governments and civil society groups in the West have accused the council of failing to perform its mandate impartially and have criticised it for focusing too intently on Israeli violations against Palestinians, while ignoring other abusive regimes.

HRW's Roth thinks that the U.S. decision to take part in next month's election would help the council improve its credibility. "By running for a seat, and exercising principled leadership as a member of the council, the United States can now help this important institution fulfill its potential," he said. The London-based Amnesty International expressed similar sentiments. "This is an important expression of the U.S. commitment with the council and the United Nations," said an Amnesty spokesperson. "[We] believe that the USA can make an important contribution to making the council a more effective body."

HRW, Amnesty and many other groups had been strong critics of actions taken by the previous administration of George W. Bush, such as "extraordinary renditions" and other abuses in the "war on terror", that they said had greatly undermined global efforts to promote and protect human rights. Noting that the new U.S. administration has taken several steps to demonstrate its respect for human rights, such as moving to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, the Amnesty spokesperson, however, urged Washington to "pursue additional measures" to improve its respect for human rights. Amnesty called for the U.S. to "articulate specific pledges" for the promotion and protection of human rights in connection with its candidacy.

Obama has also come under fire from right groups for boycotting an upcoming Apr. 20-24 anti-racism meeting in Geneva, called to review progress on the decisions made at the international conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The U.S. delegation chose to isolate itself from the conference due to concerns that the language in the Durban resolution specifically targeted Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East.

However, the Obama administration has won praise for taking other initiatives to strengthen the international agenda on issues ranging from climate change - Washington has signaled it will fully engage in international negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol later this year in Copenhagen - to women's health and reproductive rights. "[This] is a breath of fresh air for women and girls worldwide," said Serra Sippel of the Obama administration's statement this week that it is "deeply" committed to "universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the protection and promotion of reproductive rights."

Sipple, who runs the Centre for Gender and Equality in Washington, describes the new administration's pledge to protect women's reproductive rights as a clean break from past U.S. policy. "By rejecting the political games of the past eight years that used women's health and rights as pawns, the Obama administration has clearly proclaimed a new day," she added. "We congratulate the Obama administration for its sophisticated, global perspective." According to data gathered by the centre, about half a million women die each year due to pregnancy and childbirth - lives that could be saved with proper medical care.

The Bush administration had placed restrictions on international funding for reproductive health services under the argument that the U.S. taxpayers' money would be used to fund abortions. Critics say as a result of that policy, millions of women in poor countries died because they had no where to turn to for proper treatment. Sipple thinks that the new U.S. policy initiative has a great potential to enhance international efforts to save millions of women in poor countries who die due to lack of health care. "We now look to the Congress and the member of the administration to make the U.S. commitment to effective, comprehensive, and right-based approaches to sexual and reproductive health a reality for women and girls around the world," she said.

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